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Come rain or shine

Khethworks’ solar-powered pumps are helping farmers in eastern India pull the plug on erratic electricity supply

In 2016, Khethworks, a Pune-based enterprise started by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students, found a partner and benefactor in Social Alpha. Khethworks, which looks to improve the job and food security of small farmers across India, has created a portable, solar-powered pump that farmers can use to draw water, from whatever open source they have at their disposal, to cultivate their fields.

“Our pumps are specifically for smallholder farmers who own an acre or less of land, and these pumps can irrigate their holdings all year round,” says Victor Lesniewski, the chief executive and cofounder of Khethworks. “We work primarily with farmers in Jharkhand and Odisha. Many of them are trying to go commercial by growing vegetables instead of staples like paddy, which are less lucrative.”

Having a solar-powered pump means farmers are freed from the increasing fuel costs of diesel and kerosene versions, and are also spared the vagaries of inconsistent monsoons. A 2019 study by the research advisory body Koan on the demand for micro solar pumps in India states: “It is estimated that energy costs for irrigation average between 20-40% of production costs for farmers.”

“If you are trying to draw water in areas that tend to be underserved in terms of productive electricity, you must either own or rent a diesel pump,” says Mr Lesniewski. “We’re trying to provide an alternative, an asset that farmers have confidence in.”

Paucity of electricity is a recurring problem for farmers in these parts. Large tracts of land in eastern India are under-cultivated because of poor irrigation cover and that can be blamed on the unavailability of electricity. Portability and ease of use are additional advantages with the Khethworks pumps, which are small and light enough to carry to the fields and simple to set up. 

At 47,000 a unit, the Khethworks solar pump does not come cheap (a diesel or kerosene pump costs between 10,000 and 20,000). “But the operating costs for fuel pumps are high, whereas our pumps cost practically nothing to run, and we’ve found that farmers recover their money in two or three seasons,” adds Mr Lesniewski. 

There are some 30 million smallholder farmers in eastern India, where a shallow water table provides easier access to the precious resource. During the Covid outbreak, when the lockdown forced migrants to return to their villages in large numbers, many of them decided to take up farming again. This has increased demand for the solar pumps.

After Jharkhand and Odisha, Khethworks is now exploring opportunities in other states. It has deployed pumps to Assam and 11 other states across the country. Steadfast support from Social Alpha is an enabler in this regard.

Khethworks’ founders were engaged with the Tata Center for Technology and Design at MIT, which supports the institute’s research projects. It was through the Tata Trusts that they came in contact with Social Alpha, this while working on a prototype of the solar pump.

Khethworks staff conducting a training session in the Gumla district of Jharkhand

Home comforts

“We had a close relationship with the Trusts even before the incorporation of Khethworks in 2016,” says Mr Lesniewski. “By the time we shifted to India to continue our work, Social Alpha had been registered as an organisation and became a home of sorts.”

Social Alpha was an early incubator for Khethworks and later became an investor as well, providing pre-seed capital for the venture. Khethworks shared Social Alpha’s office space in Pune, was given access to whatever software and other tools it required and, when the time came, was connected to other entrepreneurs, nonprofits and potential backers.

The linkages were particularly important since the founding team of Khethworks was not from India and, therefore, didn’t have the networking prowess to get started on a strong footing.

“Part of the strength of Social Alpha is the network it has built through a range of relationships, both within the Tata group and otherwise,” says Mr Lesniewski. “That’s been a huge source of value for us.”

Social Alpha now has a representative on Khethworks’ advisory board. “It continues to have programming for entrepreneurs within its portfolio, so we are part of webinars and such to support funding opportunities,” says Mr Lesniewski. “Whenever we need an introduction or a connection, Social Alpha is there.”

Indeed, he adds, there are lots of primary and secondary advantages for Khethworks’ business, just from the credibility of being a part of the Social Alpha family.

With a capacity to produce 120 pumps a week, the startup is now eyeing scale. “While our founding mission was to serve smallholder farmers in India’s eastern region, we are looking at global markets too,” says Mr Lesniewski. “We have already exported a number of pumps to Nepal and Malawi. We also see an opportunity to provide irrigation solutions in East Africa.”

Images courtesy: Khethworks